Friday, 8 January 2016

Charles Goodnight on memes

Charles Goodnight has weighed in again on memes. This time it seems like something of a turnaround.

One of his previous contributions was this critical comment:

I think Dawkin’s concept of the “meme” is particularly telling. As I pointed out culture is intrinsically continuous and no problem for the phenotypic view of evolution; however, for the genic view it is a huge problem. In Dawkin’s view the gene as an object is the center of evolution. Culturally inherited traits cannot be objects from the genic perspective unless they are atomized. The meme is an attempt to force this intrinsically continuous concept into the particulate framework that is essential for the genic view of evolution.

That's much the same thing that many anthropologists say: memetics is an attempt to "atomize" culture.

Of course from the information-theoretic perspective that I prefer, splitting inherited cultural information up into pieces is a trivial operation. You can divide culture into memes in much the same way as you can divide information into bits. That culture can be digitized is seen on the internet - where culture of all kinds is split into streams of 1s and 0s. Of course, splitting things up in order to analyze them is also absolutely standard scientific practice.

It is true that memes sometimes depend on one another and they can't necessarily be analyzed independently. The exact same thing is true of DNA genes. Memes are just like genes in this respect.

Anyway, now Charles seems to have come around to the idea that memes might be a useful concept in cultural evolution after all. The odd thing is that it's the internet meme that he wants to use. Here's what he says:

Interestingly, the internet the term meme, or internet meme, which needs to be distinguished from the Dawkins meme, appears to be directly analogous to the collection of individual concepts that are closely related. Thus, I would suggest that we use internet meme, or just meme, to describe a set of similar individual concepts that are held by individual humans.

Promoting the concept of "internet meme" by shortening it to "meme" was also propsed by Limor Shifman in her book Memes in Digital Culture.

It is hard for me to take these proposals seriously. The idea that Millhouse is not a meme just seems stupid to me. We don't normally define "gene" in terms of how popular a particular sequence is (some comments by G. C. Williams about 'appreciable frequency' notwithstanding) - so if memes are like genes we shouldn't treat them differently in this regard.

I'm mostly OK with people shortening "popular internet meme" to "meme" - and there's certainly a need for a name for popular content. However "meme" is already taken - and it refers to a more significant and important concept.

No comments:

Post a Comment